Building navy ‘war-winners’ could renew Portsmouth’s dockyard

Welding taking place on the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth''Picture: Sarah Standing (123196-8317)
Welding taking place on the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth''Picture: Sarah Standing (123196-8317)
Presentation of arm boards to Queen Alexandra Hospital for breast surgery by Portsmouth Breast Friends

Breast cancer group donates £4,500 worth of equipment to QA Hospital

  • Union boss leads calls for city to play a critical role in building new Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships
  • Move is backed by Portsmouth North MP and the former commander of Britain’s last aircraft carrier
  • Construction could bring hundreds of jobs to the area, union claims, although dockyard insiders say the city is ‘no longer capable’ of building ships
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‘WE NEED to seize the chance to create war-winning naval supply ships and rejuvenate shipbuilding in Portsmouth.’

That is the plea today being issued by union bosses who are desperate to see the city once regain its title as a world-class hub of shipbuilding excellence.

Let’s knock some heads together and get a consortium put together to get some jobs back into the UK and back into Portsmouth

Gary Cook, GMB union

Leaders at the GMB are fighting to have a new breed of Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships built ‘as soon as possible’ to replace the three ageing ‘fleet solid support’ vessels.

And they are determined to ensure the new ships are built at shipyards across the UK, claiming Portsmouth could be in ‘pole position’ to receive a bulk of this work – supporting ‘several hundred jobs’.

It is a move that’s been backed by Penny Mordaunt, Portsmouth North MP, and a top navy admiral.

The new vessels would be a linchpin of future deployments for the Senior Service’s new Portsmouth-based super-carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, providing ammunition, food and other supplies at sea.

Gary Cook, GMB’s ex-regional organiser for Portsmouth, claimed the current RFA ships – two of which saw action in the Falklands War almost 35 years ago – needed to be replaced.

‘They are falling to pieces,’ he said. ‘They’re unreliable and have got to be renewed.

‘We could see things happening in the next couple of years. That’s why it’s vital we jump on this now.

‘Let’s knock some heads together and get a consortium put together to get some jobs back into the UK and back into Portsmouth.’

Vice-Admiral Bob Cooling commanded the UK’s last working aircraft carrier, the former HMS Illustrious.

He said the RFA was an integral part of the navy’s ability to deploy across the globe and backed calls to renew the fleet of solid support ships.

The top officer added RFA vessels had a lifespan of about 30 years; two of the current ships have already well exceeded this.

‘At the heart of any successful combat campaign is logistics – always has been and always will be,’ Vice Adm Cooling said. ‘The RFA provide that and do it superbly well.

‘It’s absolutely vital and has always been a great strength of Britain’s maritime power.

‘In my 35 years at sea it was a war-winner – it was a war-winner in at least three wartime situations, mainly the Falklands War and the two Gulf Wars. But it also played an important role in conflicts like Sierra Leone.

‘So there’s absolutely no question in my mind we need to have the full suite of operational logistics.’

Plans for the new RFA ships were confirmed in 2015’s Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Last year, leading industrialist Sir John Parker issued a scathing review of the Royal Navy’s depleted fleet, saying ships were being kept in services beyond their sell-by date.

He urged the government to ‘step up the pace’ of naval shipbuilding and said the workload should be spread across yards in the UK.

As part of this, the unions hope the new RFA vessels could be built in blocks – much like the 65,000-tonne Queen Elizabeth-class carriers were – and then assembled at a central hub.

Mr Cook said this work would be ‘important’ in keeping the nation’s shipbuilding industry alive.

But a dockyard insider said GMB’s hopes could never be achieved at Portsmouth Naval Base, after shipbuilding was axed in 2013.

The source said: ‘The fact is it isn’t a shipbuilding facility any more – just a big empty shed, apart from the two minesweepers currently languishing in there.

‘All the steel-cutting and shipbuilding equipment was either moved to Scotland, sold or scrapped when shipbuilding was stopped a few years ago, not to mention the fact that the former shipbuilding workforce have moved on.

‘All this focus, from local politicians and now GMB, on the unfeasible prospect of bringing back shipbuilding does the workforce – or for that matter the trade unions – no good at all.

‘The focus should be on securing the ship repair jobs we’ve got.’

John Ferrett, negotiator for Prospect Union, was also at odds with GMB.

He said he supported the idea of building ships in blocks across the UK but was ‘pessimistic’ about such work taking place in Portsmouth.

‘While it would be great bringing these jobs and skills to Portsmouth, we feel that the decision of the government, and failure of local MPs to honour their promises has made this difficult,’ Mr Ferrett told The News.

Procurement of the new RFA ships is in the assessment phase and the contract could be awarded by 2020.

Complex warships are always constructed in Britain. However, RFA vessels are not in the same class, meaning they can be built overseas.

An MoD spokesman said: ‘We plan to procure three fleet solid support ships, as announced in the SDSR of 2015, through open international competition.

‘We will of course welcome bids from UK shipyards across the country.’